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Sacco Sez: Mike Shanahan, Alex Gibbs and the development of assistant coaches


There are a lot of stories to follow in an NFL offseason, but none of them involve actual games.

But I find the movement of players and coaches to be fascinating, and the latter a constant in the months of February and March.

As everyone in Broncos Country knows by now, the Broncos have hired Sean Payton as their new head coach, giving Denver the absolute offseason prize of this coaching cycle. Of course, you have to win to continue to be a prize and Payton is grim-visaged when it comes to winning.

A very important part of what a head coach does is hire a staff, and this has happened for the Broncos. We hope all the assistants will be great, with perhaps future head coaches or game influencers in this group.

That got me to thinking: What is the most successful hire of an assistant coach in Broncos history?

There can be a lot of speculation as to an individual, but I suggest that the most significant assistant coaching hire in Denver history involved three men: head coach Dan Reeves and assistants Mike Shanahan and Alex Gibbs, each of whom were hired by Dan in the spring of 1984, both from the Southeastern Conference (Shanahan from Florida and Gibbs from Georgia), and both men slated to play vital roles in the Broncos' future.

It was apparent from the start that they were exceptional.

In the case of Shanahan, I can remember reading a college football magazine in 1983 and noting that Florida quarterback Wayne Peace was completing nearly 75 percent of his passes. Most of the top quarterbacks were completing in the 60s at that time, so why was Peace almost 15 percent better than the others?

Reading more and more data suggested that Peace was not a prized pro prospect, adding to the mystery of his performance.

Of course, I began to put the pieces together when Reeves hired Shanahan.

This was many years before he was known as "The Mastermind" among coaches, but it was obvious whether he was coaching wide receivers — the position for which he was originally hired — or quarterbacks, or was offensive coordinator.

The future successes of Shanahan are well documented, but Gibbs liked to fly under the radar. Way under.

He certainly was the best offensive line coach that I ever had the pleasure of watching, and expert observers regard him as one of the great line coaches in NFL history. His intensity matched and maybe even exceeded that of Shanahan, which is really saying something.

Gibbs coached for the Broncos three different times, leading the offensive line from 1984-87, serving as assistant head coach/offensive line coach from 1995-2003 (a span that included Denver's back-to-back Super Bowl wins) and as an offensive line consultant in 2013.

Gibbs was well known and recognized as the man behind the line, an instrumental figure behind the Broncos' dominant running game.

And of course, there are a few things about Alex I will never forget. He was a great coach, and I was honored to receive an Award of Excellence from the Pro Football Hall of Fame along with Alex a year ago. Alex died in 2021, but I think he had the largest family contingent in Canton of any honoree, and they were all very proud.

Alex did not believe in wasting any time at all. As his family wrote in his obituary, "Alex held a doctorate in French history and plowed through nearly a book a day—history, mysteries, memoir, philosophy."

He and his lovely wife liked to host dinner parties for their neighbors in which no one was allowed to talk about his own profession. In other words, Alex could not talk about football at his own dinner parties. His own rule, no exceptions allowed.

Alex was also a noted gardener. He could grow roses between rocks and weeds, and his family said he would give out home-grown tomatoes to anyone who wanted them.

During his heyday, he had a firm edict that his linemen could not be quoted by the press. He firmly believed that his guys should let their play do their talking.

So when we were in those Super Bowls, and it was mandatory that all coaches talk, the scrum of writers around the Gibbs table was huge, matching that for any player. And Alex did not disappoint in discussing his philosophies of coaching and of line play.

I had Shanahan at a press conference simultaneously with Alex Gibbs at a smaller area, and the press was hanging on every word.

Shanahan surely will someday join many luminaries in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but at that time in 1987 I could not help but think back to the spring of 1984, when Dan Reeves set the great Denver success in motion by hiring two assistants from the college level.

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